Foreign Affairs

APEC’s move online a sensible but sad concession

The Government's decision to move APEC 2021 from the physical world to the digital one will deprive New Zealand of some hosting benefits - but there were few other viable options, Sam Sachdeva writes

Comment: It was touted as New Zealand’s chance to shine on the world stage - but what do you do when that stage is ablaze?

You move online, as the Government has decided to do for its hosting of APEC in 2021.

The international forum had been expected to bring up to 20,000 visitors to our shores during a year-long programme of events, half of those during Leaders’ Week towards the end of the year.

It was already a daunting logistical challenge, and one that became impossible as Covid-19 dug its claws into the world.

While New Zealand itself is in the enviable position of having no active cases in the community, most APEC nations are not so fortunate.

And with officials already struggling to test and accommodate returning New Zealanders, the prospect of bringing thousands more into the country - including politicians and diplomats who would not take kindly to spending a fortnight in quarantine - was not exactly one that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet would have delighted in.

Public sentiment has already started to turn against New Zealand citizens coming home - how would we feel about people from more than 20 nations streaming through our borders?

Infrastructure under strain

In some respects, the Government could be forgiven for viewing the move away from a physical event to a digital one as a blessing in disguise.

The fire that ripped through the Sky City Convention Centre last October, putting its construction even further behind schedule and well past the point where it could be ready for Leaders’ Week, left organisers scrambling for alternative venues.

Yet there have been broader concerns about Auckland’s readiness to host such a major event: at one point, foreign affairs officials even investigated the possibility of housing attendees on cruise ships due to fears about a lack of accommodation.

Moving events online eliminates the strain on the country’s infrastructure, along with (presumably) the controversial APEC 2021 legislation making its way through Parliament, which would have granted police and foreign security officials wide-ranging powers that civil liberties groups described as anti-democratic.

“While summits are easily mocked as talk-fests, they give small states the chance to arrange bilaterals, pull-asides and corridor chats. Can't do that on Zoom.”

Then there is the cost: up to $330 million, a not-insignificant sum at a time when the Government is already loading up on debt to fund its pandemic response, and a figure which would have almost certainly swelled to account for Covid-19 health safeguards (although Ardern and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters both insisted cost was not a decisive factor).

But developing and operating a digital platform that can accommodate the security requirements of delegates and the demands of international media will not be cheap, while the move online will deprive New Zealand businesses of the economic boost that usually attaches to such events (even if the benefits are often overstated).

And there are losses that cannot be quantified, such as the ability to promote New Zealand not just as a tourist destination but an exemplar for stable democracy and sound politics, ineffable qualities less easily expressed through a pixelated conference call.

The set-piece events are easy enough to arrange online, but as Victoria University of Wellington’s David Capie says, it is the more informal, physical catch-ups that New Zealand may miss most.

“While summits are easily mocked as talk-fests, they give small states the chance to arrange bilaterals, pull-asides and corridor chats. Can't do that on Zoom.”

A chance to set the agenda

There were alternatives to moving the forum online, with 2020 host Malaysia pushing to have its “turn” extended into 2021 given the ramifications of Covid-19 on its events this year.

As Ardern pointed out, agreeing to the country’s request would not have simply pushed New Zealand into 2022, given Thailand and South Korea are already in the queue behind us.

But if we had been willing to go to the back of the line, physical events in 2024 or later may have been possible at a time when the world was, all going well, past the worst of the pandemic (if not, New Zealand would have bigger problems than losing an international summit).

It is understandable that Ardern and her Cabinet did not go down that route, given the money and time that has already gone into planning the event for next year.

There are no guarantees about what the world will look like in 2021, but that is even more so for several years from now.

We may not have Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden (or, god help us, Donald Trump) roaming down Queen St, but New Zealand still has a chance to shape the path to recovery in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Unlike Malaysia, which could not have anticipated Covid-19, and 2019 host Chile, which saw domestic unrest curtail its APEC schedule, New Zealand does have some time to figure out how to make the most of its change of approach.

Succeed, and our status as a country worth listening to could be more assured than ever.

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